Carey Talley is the first to admit it; his Germantown Legends soccer team might not necessarily pass the eye test.
“We play against teams all the time that we don’t look (as good as) getting off the bus,” he said. “But that could be one of the things that helps us. ‘What in the heck is this out here?’ . . . We have to train harder and work harder so that when we come into the games, the games are the easy part.”
True enough, the Legends might not have imposing center backs or a powerful midfield destroyer. They’re neither brash nor bigheaded. What they are, however, are exceptionally talented and skilled young soccer players, drawn from some of the top programs in the Shelby-Metro area.
And as of late, they have been making it look easy.
On Tuesday, July 20, the Legends 04 team (consisting of players who were born in 2004), will begin competition at the U.S. Youth Soccer national championship tournament in Sarasota, Florida. The squad advanced with a dominating performance in last month’s Southern Regional tournament in Greenville, South Carolina. Six games; six wins; 34 goals scored; four conceded.
Perhaps even more impressively, it marked the first time a boys team from Tennessee had won the region tournament. Talley, who played in Major League Soccer for 13 seasons, wasn’t able to do it as a youth despite playing on a team that also featured the likes of Ross Paule (another longtime MLS veteran); Richard Mulrooney (MLS, 14 appearances for the U.S. national team and current University of Memphis head coach); Tony Kuhn (a two-time All-American and the leading goal scorer in Vanderbilt history) and goalkeeper Jonny Walker (who had a successful career in Chile while also earning three caps for the United States).
“For one, the fact that they won it is impressive,” said Talley, who also serves as director of coaching for the Legends organization. “Then in the style they did it, it’s pretty neat to see.”
Said Aaron O’Malley, who will be a senior at Houston this fall: “We came out with the mentality that we were going to take apart every single team. Just go full throttle every single game. And it wasn’t just one player.”
That title-winning performance certainly has the team’s confidence level up heading into nationals.“It’s going to be hard,” said Diego Guerra, who is heading into his junior year at St. George’s. “No team is bad. But we’re going to win; we know what we have here and we’re going to show (the competition) who we are.”
Local high school soccer observers already know. Along with those from St. George’s, players on this Legends team come from perennially strong programs like Collierville and Lausanne. Four players — O’Malley, R.J. Jordan, Noah Cooper and Max Talley, the coach’s son — helped Houston win the Class AAA state championship at Spring Fling. Two others, Hudson Carr and Hunter Lomasney, played key roles as CBHS captured the Division 2-AA championship.
Two, Talley and Matt Brucker of Collierville, joined Memphis 901 FC this summer as academy players, and both already have made it on to the substitutes’ bench this season, with Brucker helping close out the final few minutes of a 2-1 victory over Indy Eleven on June 5.
O’Malley also has trained with the professional club, and Cooper was slated to do so before getting injured at the end of the high school season.
“Everyone here is top tier,” O’Malley said. “Everyone plays for the best schools in the area and I think it’s important that we bring that (training with 901 FC) back here to help raise the level.”
Clearly, the talent is there. What’s missing are the “me” players. For that, the squad can take credit as much as Carey Talley and his assistant, Kirk Dunaway, who sometimes plays good cop to Talley’s bad cop.
“Kirk has come in here and helped cultivate the culture,” Talley said. “There’s a good mentality within the group and I think he’s been a very good go-between for the kids. There’s a ton of value in a guy that can go and pull the player aside when the coach, like myself, is throwing a fit every once in a while.”
It helps, too, that several players have come up through the age groups together, adding a new piece here and there along the way. But selflessness is the key; everyone has a job to do and even if it differs from what they do during the school season, they are willing to do it for the good of the team.
“We’ve gotten so close so many times,” said Brucker, who will be a senior. “(In 2019), we lost in the (region) semifinals and I think that stuck in everybody’s head. So we’re out for vengeance. We were upset with ourselves. Playing high school is fun and we all like to compete, but when we get out here, we like to compete with each other.
“And we’re all super close; the energy is always good. It doesn’t take a long time to get back into it (when the school year ends).”
The competition format at the national tournament features two groups of four teams, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to the semifinals. The Legends open against St. Louis Scott Gallagher at 7 a.m. Tuesday before facing Pennsylvania Dominion on Wednesday at 11 a.m., and finishing the group stage against New England Surf at 11 a.m. Thursday. The title matches are set for Sunday.
It potentially could be a big week for Memphis youth soccer. In addition to the Legends, four teams from the Lady Lobos Premier organization will be competing in their respective age groups. Shelby County has produced a string of terrific school teams, both boys and girls, in the past couple of decades and this year’s national tournament will only emphasize the point.
Some of the finest youth players and organizations anywhere in the country are right here in our own backyard. Starting Tuesday, they aim to prove it.
“There’s no fear in any of these guys,” Talley said. “We’ve seen a couple of the teams we’re going to play and that’s good for us. Like I said, we don’t look good getting off the bus but there’s zero fear.”